Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Mom Always Said She Liked A Good Yarn

I've been thinking for a few weeks about some of the things I talked to Jim Sr. about on our trip to New York. It was an interesting talk, and yet, I don't mean to make it sound like something earth shattering happened. Just interesting.

It rarely occurs to me how isolated from the professional community we all are. And yet, we are. Aside from academic journals, and hiring experts to care for us or or property, your average person uses the work of an Engineer, rather than talking to her or him. Well, I had never really thought about this much until Jim Sr (for now on, Jim) started asking me what I thought about various different things. I think his ears perked up while we had worked a few years back, when I'd ask him what he knew about the origins of two by fours and stick construction. I had learned that balloon frame construction (balloon frame, is stick frame, but stick frame is not always balloon frame. Both use two by xxxxxx (four, six, eight and twelve) though what the standard for a two by four is (in terms of true dimension) remained in flux through most of the second half of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth. It is crazy fun to learn when the standards for different western countries stabilized for fasteners, such as screws, nuts and bolts. You don't work construction very long before you are stymied by what had until recently seemed a nearly philosophical question, "What is this screw?" I didn't, for example, "get" machine screws, in all their glory, until this year. Now I understand their problems and solutions to their problems, and what is fixable and what is not when fastening metals (at least the most common ones in your house.) It saves a lot of time and money to fix something with the proper screw, properly fastened, rather then repurchase the part, or God forbid, entire apparatus, due to the fact that you'd rather go to the store, and let their inventory do the knowing for you.

So Jim seemed kinda intrigued that I was interested in the history of the philosophy of construction, and the same for construction materials. His interest was more along the lines of, "Who are you?" then "Yeah, I love that stuff." He seems to see homebuilding as a kind of burden, that men who want only the best above their heads engage in. But in fact, he is more properly understood as a freakishly germanic type Scandinavian (Swedish) who can't sit still due to the pathetic consequences of entropy. Trees fall down for him into lumber, for if they do not they shall surely rot to mold. That's putting it a bit extreme, but then I have spent a bit of time with him. When he isn't interested in something he acts like your average person and feigns an interest that lasts a minute or two. But when he is even slightly interested in something he gives it his focus, and it is a pleasure to hear him talk about it.

In New York, Jim merely needed my help. I haven't the foggiest idea why. But it was a surprise to be discussing electric vehicles with him, and Amory Lovins, Green Architecture guy par excellance.

He actually asked me if I knew who Amory Lovins was. I told him what I wrote on that post last month about the Chevy Volt and my more than decade long romance with the fuel cell. Jim, having run a coal fired electric plant (and the sewage treatment, and trash services for forty thousand souls) had met Mr. Lovins. Truthfully that wouldn't be very hard to do. But it was nice to talk to someone who knew so much more about Mr. Lovins than I. Usually people could care less.

But then our conversation really took a turn that I didn't expect. It's something I have been thinking a lot about. Also, of course, I haven't had much time to write. The work I do, however, fosters an hour here, and an hour there for speculation. Sometimes I write down a question. And as you often hear people say (and I used to not believe this, but I was wrong) the answer sort of comes to you without your thinking hard about it. Or, you remember, without referencing your note, to find out about some thing. Like capacitors... but more on those later.

Jim's surprising opinion, about two hours into our eight hour conversation, was that the Chevy Volt was something of a bad idea. He wouldn't completely like me to put it that way, since his opinion was more nuanced over the course of our conversation, but there were points along the way where his case was explicit, and he said as much, "a bad idea."

It was probably somewhat new for the both of us to be talking to someone who was as interested in really opinionated pessimism as the hopeful optimism that seems to have replaced last decades patriotism for the "ism" of our time. So, with a circle having been made for whatever "ism's" were necessary, we cast our lots.

Jim's basic problem with the Volt had a pretty interesting and compelling argument.

Take two mechanical animals. Call them Animal "C" and Animal "DC."

Now Animal C has a long list of components that create power to move the animal and its riders. Among these are a gasoline engine (over 150 parts), an alternator, a cooling apparatus, a transmission (hundreds of parts), a big tank to hold fuel, and a relatively robust fuel delivery, and exhaust handling system. And a linebackers frame in which all these things can be held safely together.

Animal DC, however, has an electric motor (with around ten, or less, moving parts), no alternator (which is itself a motor run backwards), no cooling apparatus, or radiator, in many cases no transmission (and certainly no complex transmission, electric motors distribute power on a gentle, rather humane, curve), no tank to hold fuel (though a somewhat equivalent tank to hold much heavier batteries), and relatively thick cables, that none the less are light as a feather compared to fuel delivery and exhaust handling systems. And a quarterbacks frame (at least one from a few decades ago) to hold this considerably smaller number of components together.

You have already guessed which Animal is the gasoline car (Animal "C" for carbon) and which Animal is the electric, ahem, "vehicle", (Animal "DC" for direct current.) Good guess.

But here's something interesting: what would you have if you added an electric motor to Animal C? If you answered a Hybrid, you'd be on to my game. In fact, it would have to have four, I believe, but you get my drift. A Hybrid, is Animal C, primarily, with some electric motors (on top of that gasoline engine and it's huge entourage of weight and complexity.)

Now none of this is Earth shattering news. We all know this already. A Hybrid is a step in the right direction. It's a half electric car. With half the benefits of an electric right? Sure it is.

The problem is that no one can conveniently explain to Jim why, from an Electrical engineers perspective, all the extra infrastructure and complexity of a gasoline powered animal isn't that much more argument for the simplicity, and especially the efficiency and low cost of an all electric animal. All that extra machining and trouble that go into an Engine, and all the extra weight in the apparatus's of it's entourage, it has been argued, by the choices the car makers make, don't outweigh the batteries and motor of the most basic electric car. Jim, an electrical engineer, thinks something is Rotten at Volvo (whoops, I forgot, Volvo is made in Sweden. Something is Rotten at a neighbor of Volvo's home country! Much clearer.) And I cannot figure out whether I agree with him.

What he doesn't like about the volt is that it is continuing the tradition of more complexity and expense, that Detroit (meaning all automakers, here) seems to view as a great idea.

Now, when I first began arguing with Jim about this, I really had a lot of counter arguments (and to a great extent still do. I hate rolling over.) However, Jim had an ace up his sleeve, actually a couple. He had ordered some of his engineering staff at the electric utility he ran, to procure two electric motors and all the things needed to install them in two trucks. He had done this around 1990, nine years or so before he retired, just before 2000. Those trucks ran for fifteen years on lead acid batteries. The parts to change them over from typical gasoline powered S-10's to electric S-10's were available as conversion kits, from some nationally distributed outfits. Once the kits were in the possession of Jim's employees(!!), the lucky saps got to work putting them into the trucks, and removing the extraneous (now) entourage of the the modern internal combustion powered truck.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line was that the trucks performed rather flawlessly with almost no breakdown, or issues of usage on our typical roads and highways, for fifteen years. S-10's with lead acid batteries. Over a decade ago. Simple machines, with simple power, delivering it in one of the oldest set ups in western culture's industrial history: DC motor, from lead acid battery, direct to powertrain, direct to wheels. No transmission.

"No regenerative brakes." I said, with finality, and amusement.

"No, we added those eventually," said Jim with a chuckle. There were some things this kid didn't know about.

No kidding.

This is just a small part of our conversation. I also happen to love the subject of municipal waste, and environmental impacts, and abuses by the environmentalist movement, that may set us back as a culture. Jim, who clearly has been on a lifelong journey of change in his points of view about many things, would not claim a movement or side upon which he stands. He did tell hilarious stories about his electric utility being sued for many different things. One of them: the water from the cooling towers of the utility were warming up the river the plant had drawn them from, when returned to the river. Did this damage the ecosystem, forcing someone to sue to save the rivers fishes? No. The utility was sued by a guy who claimed he could no longer walk his dog across the river, that now, never froze in winter.

The dog walker won. The publicly owned, community, utility lost. Rough rough.

In response to this public flogging for canine abuse, Jim created one of the first completely insular, zero fluids back to the river, power plants. To this day, the power plant only discharges an extremely negligible amount. For example, were you to walk a grasshopper....

Instead the power plant, smack in the middle of Jamestown (Lucille Ball's home town), heats many of the buildings adjacent to it, and does other interesting stuff with the heat that it produces as "waste" when burning coal.

Jim, and the community board that oversaw the plant with him, automated the plant with fully electric, and automatic, or servo controlled, computerized systems decades ago. Before the costly conversion, the system employed a few thousand pneumatic devices, attached to many thousand valves, for control of the plant. Needless to say, pneumatic sensors exist, and have existed a long time, with the dials and pressure switches, ect. that are so familiar to anyone who has looked at old factories. But sensitive switches, tied into a computerized system with dynamic control over a broad range of choices, pressures, and feedback; all tied into databases with exquisite routines and information collection... yeah, pneumatic switching does not do that.

And lastly, I have loved reading about trash since 1993, when I finished a People magazine at Goshen College's Library, the cover of which read, "River Phoenix, dead at ##." I put the magazine back where it belonged and returned to my chair, to rest my eyes on a new book I had found in the new book section. And so it was that at nineteen I first read, Rubbish: the anthropology of trash at Fresh Kills Landfill. Fresh Kills is a landfill in New York. Which borough? I don't know. I thought some end of Staten Island, but that doesn't sound right? Then again it's out of commission. Though they did open it for the debris from ground zero. I remember being rather surprised. Let me find out for a minute where Fresh Kills is. Wikipedia say's Staten Island. I was afraid of that. Now how am I going to prove I didn't look it up first?

Apparently there are all these plans to turn the country's largest toxic compost pile into something really nice for the kids. I mentioned this to a woman I used to work with from New York, and she rolled her eyes, "Yeah, more grass, less jobs."

"Come on, I told her, it'll be nice." I was kidding. But who knows the answer, really. My buddy Daniel, was from Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn. His parents class consciousness and urban exhaustion, despite their relatively decent income (his father worked in one of the World Trade Center buildings, and Daniel had interned there with his father as well.) seemed to me a function of the difference between my childhood (people living homogeneously, pretending that to be a shame) and Daniel's (people living cosmopolitan, and feeling at times ashamed at their real feelings.) I love reading how the fishing is going on websites devoted to the pier at Sheepshead Bay. And Google Earthing it is no big pain in my ass. No. Coney Island is right off the Bay. And some seriously interesting, historically relevant seafood restaurants. One just went out of business, again. Daniel told me about it originally, but then I read about it and saw it, where else, on the Food Network. Then I read in the Metro section of the Times that it had finally collapsed from the palsy of our fisheries. I bet there's one little fish out there somewhere.

So given some of what I just said, above, certainly not all of it, since I've seem to have forgotten what I was actually meaning to say. Jim was a bit fun to ask questions about trash. After reading Rubbish, I scouted around for the last fifteen years for books likely to have Rubbish in their Bibliographies (I have a stinky suspicion it may one day be in one of mine.) There are many, many examples. All of them worth a glance. And I have spent a handful of nights, at the Herman Well's Library (former Main) at IU burning the midnight oil, enthralled with the story of municipal trash. Also at bookstores.

Garbageland comes to mind, I don't remember the authors. And other books that talk about the policy of recycling, trash, polymers and construction wastes... you name it. I even read a great book by an apologist for the container industry. I picked the book up do to an egotistical desire on my part to see if Indiana's own Ball Company (now not located in Indiana, but still producing containers. They make a lot of plastic containers, and your occasional beer can for an "Import" beer brewed domestically after the batch of Bud's all done. Look on the side of the can. "The Ball Corporation." Jarhead's no longer.)

That apologist for the container industry mentioned The Ball Corporation. I don't remember why. I was already a bit of a sucker for the difference between an analytic approach to environmental problems, and what I more typically see, which is a sort of imprinting of a frustration in losing one sort of religion, for the necessarily even more humanist endeavor of the environmentalist. It shouldn't surprise the person surmising such a cynical thing that the born again Lefty for the trees ain't doing the math. This doesn't obviate being a lefty (I am one.) It's a little sad, none the less. Should you bring up math. At the sit in. Don't. Be happy.

The apologist, to my delectation, with full prejudice, and loads of math, did a little experiment in sustainability. He broke down the numbers of a single unit of a fast food store, like a McDonalds. You know: straw: one ounce; hamburger wrapper: half ounce; small cup: one ounce... on and on. From "utensil implements" to "glassware equivalents" (yes, they rhyme: blame him, he's the container industry apologist, not I.) And so, by checking into the total waste per customer (which common sense says a fast food restaurant produces a lot of) our hero, the apologist for the container industry comes up with a figure like: 18 ounces per customer. Now, he continues, imagine that there are 1000 customers a day. That's eighteen thousand ounces per day, every day of the year (give and take.) God, I love this stuff (meanwhile at the sit-in I am singing kum by ah, off key. Great song.)

Even a dolt like myself can figure out that eighteen thousand ounces divided by sixteen equals 1125 pounds. That's a lot of trash.

But wait!

How much trash would it have been if every table had been set and serviced with real glassware and serviceware, as opposed to their equivalents. And then how many pounds of water, at what force per minute would be required to clean all of the dishes that resulted. And how many napkins washed. And how many man hours tallied. And how much waste, off the plates, as opposed in your hand, when your teeth reach the end of the burrito or Big Mac.

I worked at McDonald's for at least two years. A half a ton of trash was not my favorite part of the job. Fermenting high fructose ketchup being the particularly memorable smell. However, I have also worked at a full service restaurant, a steakhouse. And a bakery (with throwaway everything for the customers.) And a sandwich shop, ect. ect. ect.

Seemingly greener, less convenient restaurants... slower restaurants, make huge claims. They should... it is almost impossible for them to compete for your dollar.

So they save the world with your patronage, or at least must claim to, or else attempt the impossible against the Dollar Menu's of the world. This usually requires a wink from a thoughtful, and forgiving customer. For most of us know--- the task of doing right by the world is nearly impossible. Eight out of ten business attempts will fail. And the other two be the ugly stepchildren of the multinationals. And risk being reminded at their next board meeting that they are not meeting financials, ect. Or simply pay the rent, with what they had wanted to pay a local farmer.

The apologist for the container industry will forever have my thanks for showing me what making a difference really means. You cannot want the best. You cannot mean well. You cannot be scandalized by the mechanisms of the multinationals. You must reconfigure the claims that got you here in the first place. Do I really intend, in business, to be quantifiably better, on all the metrics available for my claims? Or can I be happy to sit my people down, and ask them, "Which will it be, Glory, or a Story?"

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